By Elizabeth Miroshnichenko – Secretary-General – NGO Handicraft Chamber of Ukraine
Since the days of “Kievan Rus”, the first East Slavic state, Ukraine was always highly diverse and rich in crafts and trades. Crafts developed rapidly in rural and urban areas. In fact, they were the very conduits connecting neighbourhoods and entire regions, forming the basis of economic relations and proto-entrepreneurship.
Rural and urban crafts competed with each other, pushing craftspeople to unite and become the basis of the initial forms of industrial and economic cooperation.
Each Ukrainian region possessed its own unique characteristics and craft centres. The natural resources of each territory contributed to an organic development of distinct industries.
The functioning and development of actual industries was ensured by professional craftsmen, while many enterprises maintained family status and traditions in such industries as pottery, weaving, sewing, woodworking, stonemasonry.
Significant technical and technological development was reached in metallurgy, textile processing, glass, brick production, and jewellery. The produce of potters, woodworkers, bone cutters and leatherworkers was in high demand, along with progressive increase of processing of iron ore, wood, and stones.
Besides serving the domestic market, many goods became the subject of foreign trade, a decisive circumstance in the economic growth of Kievan Rus in the 13th century.
Along with the advancement of urbanisation processes, professional differentiation of craftspeople deepened, and initial forms of manufacturing gradually emerged.
Over the centuries, craft industries developed on the basis of long-established traditions. Some industries and processes were modified under the influence of economic factors; some underwent significant changes in the production structure, product range, while others gradually declined over time.
Already back at that time, local authorities, being aware of the significance of handicraft production, took various measures to preserve and support it.
In the early 20th century, together with traditional crafts, the artel form of production – a Tatar term standing for a small voluntary association of individuals who come together for a limited or indefinite period for the purpose of performing some economic activity – began to develop, being later replaced by factory production. The interwar and post-war periods were detrimental to traditional crafts.
Due to a rapid industrialisation and its dominant role in the economy, the remnants of traditional handicrafts, as well as craft products almost entirely vanished from everyday life, being replaced by industrial products. By the end of the 20th century, an erstwhile diversified system of trades and handicrafts was almost wiped out.
In Soviet times, the ruling Communist Party sought to extinguish the very notion of property, individuality and human desire for self-expression. The concept of ‘craft’ became somewhat derogatory; ideologically it was associated with an outdated and primitive form of production. To this day, once effectively destroyed, Ukrainian traditional craft production and craftspeople as a social phenomenon still cannot fully recover from the damage inflicted by the Soviet Union.
At the same time, all over the world, a special place is assigned to handicraft, and master craftsmen products are proudly presented on central streets. Today, craft has regained its primary value – economy-wise, in many countries craft has its own status, while society-wise, craft is seen as a social force, as it deeply affects education and jobs, and the overall social culture. Crafts are the bearer of traditions passed down through generations.
In every country, traditional crafts, both manual and mechanised labour, and craft cooperatives, hold a special place, regardless of activities and professions. World-renowned brands can be the result of the work of one craftsman or an entire cluster of companies producing masterpieces, detail by detail, cycle by cycle.
Thanks to international organisations, and efforts of national and professional associations, traditional handicrafts are gaining more and more support and new opportunities in preserving traditional skills and know-how and in their advancement towards combining modern tools and innovations.
Fine crafts and contemporary crafts
In Ukraine, craft and its types has not yet been identified or classified. In the legal field only the concept of folk art exists.
In the information field, conventionally craft is split by the Handicraft Chamber of Ukraine to the categories – technical and artistic, and traditional and contemporary.
Traditional crafts in Ukraine are closely associated with folk art rather than with cultural heritage. Economic research lacks any scientifically based definitions or a legal conceptual framework.
In 2018, the definition of “creative industries” has been given a legal status and the Ukrainian government invited an UK expert to help defining a creative industries model. But this turned out to be not enough and crafts remained unrecognized, while in the Creative Industry model, crafts were reduced to a narrow concept of folk art.
Yet, albeit spontaneously, fortunately handicrafts are steadily advancing under the new socio-economic conditions, as is their significance in creative industries, in product design, fashion, decor, book production. Local craft SMEs and creative tourism stimulate the economic growth of Ukraine’s regions.
Modern crafts often built on traditional crafts, adding design to them. Materials used in modern crafts are still the same metal, clay, wood, glass, and textile fibres.
Tailoring and footwear, production of furniture, cosmetics, gastronomy, jewellery, interior items, and toys were among those trades that experienced fastest development. At the same time, contemporary approach allows for introduction of more ergonomic and better manageable processes, as well as applying new innovative tools that can improve certain production processes and the product quality.
In order to keep up with demand in the domestic market and be more competitive in foreign markets, under current conditions it has become a necessity to offer premium quality and uniqueness, and to promote one´s concept, to be a messenger of the brand.
Lots of handicraft products were created as fusion of different handicrafts. Virtuosity of the creators contributed to the emergence of new forms, unique combinations, use and sometimes growing of biomaterials. Artisans are increasingly opening up to creative collaborations, innovation spaces and experimental labs.
The Handicraft chamber of Ukraine
For many years, the Handicraft chamber of Ukraine (HCU) has been a member of the world’s largest craft associations and EU councils, international creative and cultural organisations and networks, as well as organiser and participant in joint projects, both, with governmental and non-governmental bodies.
Every year, HCU analyses and evaluates the state of craft trades in Ukraine, promotes the advancement of entrepreneurship by handicraft-related activities, lobbying convenient conditions for access to the EU market for Ukrainian craftspeople.
Together with public and private partners from countries such as United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Georgia, the HCU closely cooperates in international research and exchanges experiences on traditional, modern innovative crafts as a critical element of creative industries and integral part of cross-sectoral interaction, in particular with respect to the art industry, antiques, fashion, design, architecture, etc.
Also, the HCU encourages and implements training programs for craftspeople, including mentoring in craft industries.
It is worth emphasising that vocational education, the ongoing dialogue and cooperation with stakeholders on specialised educational and vocational schools, both, at the regional and sectoral levels, are paramount in the development of creative industries.
In line with the EU’s strategy for international and cultural relations, Ukraine’s creative sector is supported by the “Creative Europe” programme. HCU is one of eight partners implementing the programme’s priorities via the “Crafting Europe” project, attracting Ukrainian artisans and a wide range of stakeholders.
The goal of “Crafting Europe” is to build capacity in the craft sector across Europe. To this end, HCU, in collaboration with partners and an international research company, has developed and implemented a research methodology to identify the situation of crafts in partner countries and to study successes and gaps. Upon processing the research results, a dedicated report was forwarded to the European Commission.
In the above-mentioned cooperation, Ukraine has also introduced an educational component for craftspeople to strengthen their market and export opportunities and improve their competitiveness. A methodology of innovation and technology practice was developed and implemented to attract future generations of skilled craft specialists and to transfer key skills, by exploring and using new technologies.
Crafting Business School for craftspeople
In 2020, the Handicraft Chamber of Ukraine, in partnership with the MIM Business School and under the Crafting Europe project (Creative Europe programme) established Ukraine´s first Crafting Business School for craftspeople and manufacturers. The training program was set up according to the British Hothouse methodology. One obligatory criterion was that participants needed to plan or start their own business or to represent an operating business that had existed for no longer than four years.
The CBS offers a training program that allows to focus on assessing one´s own resources, capabilities and risks by advising marketing and PR promotion tools, shaping a vision and giving recommendations on how to form an effective team. Further teaching goals concern approaches on identifying market niches and solutions, the specifics of business development and transformation, organising sales via the Internet and by digital export, perfecting of start-up projects, etc.
The school is held online and thus covering all Ukrainian regions. The school team includes facilitators, teachers from MBA programmes, coaches, and active young entrepreneurs performing as guest speakers.
In 2021, the HCU launched the iAtelier programme in Ukraine as part of the same project. iAtelier is an innovative project- and practice-based educational program offering new tools for creating new products and design prototypes, as well as digital technologies for business innovation, and for improving efficiency and performance of SMEs, in both, craft and in creative industries.
The practice-oriented educational program promotes the adoption and use of latest digital
technologies and tools integrating modern digital design technologies by those craftspeople
who still possess key handicraft skills, encouraging them to adopt innovative forms of creativity into handicraft activities and production practice.
The goals of the iAtelier programme include the following:
- integration of state-of-the art digital technologies into craft practice,
- expanding cooperation opportunities, stimulating innovation and new product development,
- attracting future generations of craftspeople, especially recent university graduates, start-ups and SME businesses of the craft and design sector, and
- adopting of new technologies and their use for widening traditional craft processes.
What’s the future of crafts?
Adherence to the European position in the field of crafts in the socio-economic context opens to Ukraine numerous, large-scale opportunities and new international instruments, such as; integration of education programmes, new skills and competencies, exchange, funding, providing opportunities for Ukrainian craftspeople to join the modern craft movement.
For a clear understanding of the role of the modern creative economy in Ukraine, systemic problems need to be solved, since, as for now, crafts are considered solely in the context of folk art.
Consequently, a detailed analysis and study of the cultural impact and socio-economic value of crafts – folk craft being a part of crafts – is highly needed, as a lack of such analysis and research leaves obvious gaps in skills, in the craft´s overall value and in its poor awareness even within the creative industry, as well as at local, and regional levels, unidentified.
Identity, definition and visibility are the key issues – a need for a shared and enhanced identity, the definition of folk craft as part of the craft sector, in order to define a clear and holistic approach to understanding the sector itself in the context of creative industries, thus increasing its visibility and awareness in culture and within creative communities, for the benefit of the general public, within a national legal framework.
As mentioned above, while involvement of future generations of skilled folk craft practitioners, maintaining of key skills (for knowledge transfer) and adoption and use of new technologies in modern crafts remain major challenges, education and training become key policy areas.
Narrowing the craft sector solely to folk art deprives all crafts from access to infrastructure and support.
As for now, there is a clear need to improve access to support and infrastructure, including financing, internships and commercialisation, support in organising exhibitions and offering space and marketing tools for selling craft products via diverse local and international channels.
What makes a craftsman today? What is his or her unique role?
It´s the capability to be multitasking, taking an active economic, social, and cultural role.
An artisan is a manufacturer, entrepreneur, teacher, mentor, materials specialist, innovator, inventor, designer, a cultural messenger, employer, exporter, and owner.
The craftsman is a leader in change, quickly adapting to environmental challenges, especially in the face of VUCA (Volatility Uncertainty Complexity Ambiguity).
However, the craftsman´s core value is that craft is his essence and the centre of his life. Thinking beyond profit, it´s the creator´s name and fame, his quality and excellence – the true treasures that accompany him. It is key that by changing the form, craft always, at any technological stage, constitutes a link between generations.
Any essential innovations that need to be spread become a trend just because of craft people that pick them up. After all, they are both, locomotives of development of local markets, and by digitalisation they can be a driving force in the development of a global community and global networks.
Main focus today should be in recognizing the global significance of craft, its role in shaping a conscious and sustainable future, exploring craft in its ability to reform education, employment and entrepreneurship.